Liam Toland: Ireland’s narrow tactics won day but could have cost them
Joe Schmidt came up trumps but better teams will exploit our weaknesses
CJ Stander dives over a maul to score Ireland’s opening try against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
At half time I wondered, are fatiguing tactics winning tactics? Well, a final score of 35-25 and four Irish tries is the answer. It was obvious from the very start that Ireland were intent on field position when they had possession.
Johnny Sexton kicked the first two balls he got, the second of which was a real beauty over the head of Tim Visser. The crowd agreed and the blood was up for an afternoon of bludgeoning Scots.
The key difference between the sides was the method employed around field position and scoring plays. Ireland astutely kicked their way out of trouble but Scotland tried to play their way out. The teams’ philosophy for crossing the line varied hugely as Ireland chose to bludgeon, bludgeon and bludgeon some more.
The lineout maul became a real tool and at times many more than the requisite eight forwards joined in. But at its core was the delivery from Rory Best to the consistently varied targets: front, middle and back. To be fair to Scotland, they battled each lineout maul bravely and often got the drive but Ireland maintained focus and a tool that had laid dormant for some time provided tries.
Any match is about imposing your game on the opposition. Ireland certainly did this, using all their resources. At several stages as Ireland mounted sustained pressure on Scotland’s line there were 14 Irish players ‘concertinad’ into 15 metres of width, with only Andrew Trimble way out on the right-hand side. Winning tactics are always the best tactics.
However, issues remain in the Irish attack around how narrow it becomes. This same narrow approach is evident equally in their defence, with both Italy and Scotland scoring out wide. Time and again I’ve pointed out how Ireland in multiphase defensive positions have their frontrow in the middle of the ‘backline’ defending. Time and again the opposition have failed to recognise this but I noted on Friday that Stuart Hogg would do damage to fatiguing Irish fatties. What a wonderful player he is.
I am surprised how seldom the tournament has exposed our frontrow in midfield; England certainly will in time.
As an exit strategy, Conor Murray box-kicked as he’s done hundreds of times in his career. This one may have been a tad longer but no harm . . .
However, with Hogg gathering, all bets were off; infield he ran, supported by his winger Tommy Seymour. The Scottish winger created doubt in the Irish frontrow defending in midfield and, with Hogg motoring at that pace, that’s all it took for the opening try.
But peel back a tad and you’ll notice that the Irish frontrow didn’t happen to be there by chance. They were in that position long before Murray box-kicked. Hence, that’s an Irish system that was being employed and not a happenstance of an evolving game. Hogg headed straight for them. What will better opposition do?
Contrast this winning Irish approach to Scotland’s, as manifest by Richie Gray’s try.
There was a terrible defensive read from yet another Irish frontrower who abandoned his channel in hunting Scotland’s first receiver. That Trimble was already covering Duncan Weir made Best’s decision most unfortunate, with Gray simply catching Weir’s pass to score.
This score highlights two aspects: Ireland frontrowers in midfield defence and that Scotland were happy to bludgeon once or twice before hunting for space out wide. Maybe these were specific tactics to simply beat the Scots and ensure table and world ranking position, but Ireland appeared to ignore available space to continue battering their way over; four tries, mind you!
However, for all the fine ambition for space from Scotland, they continually searched when deep in their own half and gained little reward. To top this, they expended vital energy six days on from their high of beating France. Add to this their two yellow cards and the tactical honours go to Joe Schmidt for engineering a win.
I do sympathise with Scotland on many fronts but on 65 minutes I said to myself – “don’t panic, Scotland”.
Ireland were vulnerable for the second week in a row to opposition tries. Had Robbie Henshaw been sin-binned on 73 minutes for his pull down of Hogg, who knows?
A couple of subtle Irish plays attracted my attention. Leading to Murray’s try from another lineout maul Ireland had broken out in midfield. Jamie Heaslip made the offload, which was made easier by his reading of Richie Gray’s overzealous defensive positioning as he powered onto the weak shoulder to test the tackle.
Another play involved Keith Earls, who read a blindside break from Murray and ran a diagonal switch to expose Scottish space behind.
It was a brief window but it was wonderful to see Earls seeing space. His post-tackle technique is also of great value: he never finishes the tackle with the player hitting the deck; he keeps hunting, as he did when swinging his right foot at the rucked ball to gain a great turnover. In fact, both Irish wingers spent considerable time sharing one wing.
These systems and strategies have provided 13 tries in our last two games and warrant huge compliments. But the greater hurdles down the track will bring much greater pressure on these systems in their current guise. Food for thought?